20
26
dev

Crisis Communications: How Chick-fil-A Weathered the Storm

By: dev | December 19, 2013 | 
105

Crisis Communications- How Chick-fil-A Weathered the StormBy Clay Morgan

When it comes to crisis communications, there is nothing better than being prepared.

Despite it’s recent bad publicity, Chick-fil-A may have proven itself to be one of the most prepared companies out there.

In the summer of 2012, Dan Cathy, CEO of the fast-food chicken restaurant chain, expressed his support of the biblical definition of marriage (and opposition to gay marriage) on a conservative radio talk show and in a religious publication.

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, Cathy tweeted his disappointment in the high court’s ruling.

Gay rights groups also pointed out the company financially supported organizations that stood against gay marriage. Protests were organized and the onslaught began.

The Enduring Company

There were efforts, a couple of them successful, to remove Chick-fil-A from college campuses. There were protests, rallies, and picketers. Social media exploded in an unrelenting attack on the restaurant chain.

But here’s the thing: In the midst of it all, the restaurant chain grew.

QSR Magazine, a trade publication serving the fast food industry, announced in its August 2013 edition that in 2012, Chick-fil-A rose to the number nine spot in revenue among fast food restaurants.

It surpassed KFC (with only one-third the number of locations) to become the best-selling chicken restaurant in the country, finishing at $4.62 billion in total revenue, an increase from the previous year’s $4.1 billion.

As a Christian-based company, they are closed on Sundays. Still, the average Chick-fil-A restaurant had greater sales in six days than most McDonald’s restaurants had in seven days during 2012.

It makes you wonder if there was a crisis…or if the crisis communications team just managed it expertly.

The Basics

One of the key things about Chick-fil-A is their reputation, one I think is demonstrated by my own personal experiences.

I like the food. When I was working at the newspaper, I’d visit the restaurant a couple times a week. The food quality is consistent, no matter which location you visit.

But there’s something else. Their customer service, in my opinion, far exceeds any other fast food restaurant. They greet you warmly. They thank you for your order and the ‘thanks!’ sounds genuine. And then there are two other simple words. In a video interview, Dan Cathy told the interviewer there is a 87 percent chance that if you say “thank you” to an associate, the response will be “my pleasure.” There’s something special about those words.

The restaurants overall are clean and the tables have fresh flowers. The staff checks on you – It is almost like being at a high-end restaurant. When I visit a Chick-fil-A, I feel like the staff wants to serve me and wants me to have a pleasant experience. I can’t always say that for other more popular fast-food restaurants.

Other Activists

When Cathy made his controversial marriage statements, gay-rights activists planned boycotts. Students voted to remove Chick-fil-A from campuses. But they weren’t the only ones who entered the fray.

Brand supporters, including conservatives and Christian groups, organized an appreciation day. According to ABC News, as many as 605,000 people may have participated in the appreciation day. Estimates are that the average restaurant experienced a 29 percent increase in same-day sales.

Their supporters were vocal. Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and others spoke out in support of the chain during the controversy. Even the American Civil Liberties Union and Mike Bloomberg, while not endorsing Cathy’s comments, did defend his right to say them.

Crisis Communications: What Can We Learn?

The Chick-fil-A crisis communications plan started long before the controversy ever erupted and didn’t look like a plan most of us would develop.

Here is what we can learn:

  1. Have company values. Chick-fil-A has a strong set of company values that range from traditional faith to firm ideas about customer service. Not everyone agrees with them, but a lot of people strongly identify with them, which increases their loyalty to the brand.
  2. Give your clients and customers a tremendous experience. This is customer service at its core. As a Chick-fil-A customer, they exceed my expectations every, single time I go in to the restaurant. It is ingrained into the very culture of the company and should be in yours too. Customers treated exceptionally well are far more likely to weather a storm with you.
  3. Cultivate brand ambassadors with influencers. As soon as the controversy erupted, conservative leaders such as Mike Huckabee, Ann Coulter, Rick Santorum, and Sarah Palin rushed to the company’s defense. Regardless of politics, they have a lot of influence over very large populations, and they had a lot to do with the hugely successful appreciation day.

Engage

A little talk can go a long way. Cathy engaged his accusers. He made some changes in the company’s giving, but he also talked to those who had a problem with his statements.

In particular, ABC News reported the CEO and Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, engaged in conversations at the height of the controversy. Windmeyer expressed that the two have become friends, despite their opposing views on gay marriage.

They may not be changing each other’s minds, but they seem, based on comments in the article, to understand one another.

While the company did engage a crisis communications plan in the traditional sense, it was what they did before, as part of their basic culture, that made the difference when the chicken coop got kicked.

104 comments
SpinSucks
SpinSucks

@jccarcamo I thought that Chick-fil-A case study was interesting. Hard not to get fired up about it, but a PR success ^gd

JRHalloran
JRHalloran

So, the rankings (from best to worst) of fast food restaurants in my book are:  

1.Chick-Fil-A 

2. Five Guys 

3. Pop Eye's 

4. Wendy's 

5. Burger King 

6. McDonald's 

7. Taco Bell


What about you guys?

JRHalloran
JRHalloran

What I find most interesting is how Chick-Fil-A didn't have to change a thing at all in their policies. They never backed down from what they believed in, and to the best of my knowledge, they still support all of the same things they did before the crisis. 

Talk about effective PR! 

Most of the time, a company concedes to the whim of the public and has to change a policy or retract a statement. In this case, Chick-Fil-A actually came out stronger by sticking to their values.

But most importantly, I think the only reason why they were able to come out of this situation stronger is because they're a damn good restaurant with great food and service. If they were like McDonald's or any other fast food restaurant, they definitely would've suffered a dry spell for a little while.

biggreenpen
biggreenpen

Interesting perspective, Clay. I am intentionally not reading everyone else's comments because I want to say what I think first (but I am looking forward to seeing everyone else's thoughts afterwards). I also, just an hour ago, read the Shane Windmeyer-related piece, which I found interesting. After all of the furor around Cathy's comments a while back, I have been a much less frequent CFA visitor. I do find their customer service downright incredible and that's surely in short supply these days. I've developed reservations about their ingredients (I'll spare everyone the long list but the "anti foaming agents" for example) that have led me to have less of an appetite for CFA.  I re-read what I wrote in July 2012 (was that only a year and a half ago?) and decided I still feel pretty much the same way. I was, however, heartened by the way that Cathy & Windmeyer apparently were able to have a civil discourse even though they both disagree on so many fundamentals. (And you're right -- specifics of the "crisis" aside, having a plan trumps not having one every single time.) Here's my post: http://biggreenpen.com/2012/07/30/when-a-check-in-says-more-than-i-was-here/


susancellura
susancellura

I like this post @ClayMorgan. The point of it is to have a crisis communication plan in place. And then, ensure people know it backwards and forwards. And then, practice it before an issue actually arises. We used to do that at a chemical company I worked for back in the day, for obvious reasons.

stevesonn
stevesonn

Thanks for this interesting post @ClayMorgan. It's important to note the type of crisis it was: one of a viewpoint. A crisis surrounding a brand's products or services is often much more threatening. Even among Chick-fil-A's detractors, there is general agreement that they have a great product and great service. The brand has done a good job of focusing on what it does best, and getting the word out about it. 

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

I think a large part comes down to the religious beliefs of companies involved. It's no coincidence that both Chick-fil-A and the Duck Dynasty guy made statements based on their religious beliefs.

Now, whether you agree with these statements or not, you have to respect the right that if you demand retractions, boycotts, etc., you are demanding that person retract the religious belief(s) they've grown up with.

Didn't Kuwait get "counter-invaded" to protect religious belief? Didn't Europe stand up to Hitler to defend religious belief? Didn't Gandhi take a non-violent stand to defend religious belief (and free a nation at the same time)?

I don't agree with either point of views of Cathay and the Duck Dynasty guy. BUT... I do believe they're coming from a point of their honest views based on their religion. And if we want to truly be a better world, we need to accept religious beliefs are not unanimous on topics of agreement.

And I'm not even religious. :)

Besides, we can always all vote with our wallets and viewing habits...

belllindsay
belllindsay

Coming from the land of Pierre Trudeau's 1967 (!!) Omnibus Bill and his famous quote: "There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation." - I find it difficult to believe we're still having this conversation. But, that said, if you believe in the "right" for YOU to hold certain beliefs and have certain freedoms, you have to also believe in the right for OTHERS to have their own beliefs. You also have the right to disagree, and choose to protest with your wallet. 


Sure, some people's viewpoints can make me angry, or make me shake my head at what *I* perceive to be their ignorance - but this post was written about a company who weathered a storm, and came out the other side fairly OK. Whatever their 'franchise' policies are or are not. 


And the take-away provided in this post can be applied to any company or organization - left-wing, right-wing, or otherwise. Haven't we ALL learned, at one time or another, from the actions of others? Whether you deem then good, bad or ugly? 


Let's keep personal politics out of it if we can. The piece wasn't written to be inflammatory, nor was it written with personal politics in mind. I would hope your comments moving forward will reflect that. 

Carol Cool
Carol Cool

One other step they took, in some areas, was on the protest/boycott day, which I believe was the following Saturday, the managers served free lemonade to the protesters outside, and some even gave them free chicken sandwiches. That is a great crisis communication move if you look at all the press they got for it. (And falls right in with their Christian values from the sermon on the mount: "do good to those who hate you.")

SuzanneVara
SuzanneVara

@SpinSucks it was a great follow up to the "crisis." I had no idea their sales were so high. Hmh

jccarcamo
jccarcamo

@SpinSucks I agree. You never know how you're going to react when faced with a crisis, but they handled it well...even if they started it.

ClayMorgan
ClayMorgan

@biggreenpen Thanks for sharing. 


The issues try to evoke emotion, so when I wrote the piece, I decided "the heck with the reasons behind the crisis, why did the company grow."


Ingredients are huge issues with any fast food establishment (and I think will be a significantly growing issue) and I think a serious issue with those will bring a restaurant chain down faster than the CEO's opinion on social issues.

Latest blog post: Livefyre Conversation

Chrisa_Hickey
Chrisa_Hickey

@MikeSchaffer there's being an a-hole, and then there's actively working to violate someone's right to equal protection under the Constitution.  Cathy's words and Chik-Fil-A's investment in anti-gay marriage groups is the latter.  I'm happy to say I have never set foot in another Chik-Fil-A since that day, and never will.

ClayMorgan
ClayMorgan

@Danny Brown Great points on respecting other views.


The simple fact for Chick-fil-A and probably for Duck Dynasty, is the two brands have something very strong happening and they (or that) is much more than the religious beliefs of their leadership.

Latest blog post: Livefyre Conversation

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

@Danny BrownI mentioned voting with my wallet. I can handle Chick-fil-A more so than the businesses choosing and deciding type of healthcare they get through them. Chick-fil-A has gay workers. And to my knowledge never told workers in states with gay marriage that they can't marry.


So I agree Danny I don't object to their right and freedom to their own views and religion even if I don't agree with them.


What I am curious about was if the political donations were personal or from the company.

SpinSucks
SpinSucks

@SuzanneVara Me neither! Very interesting. Millions of sociological studies could stem from the entire thing! ^lp

JRHalloran
JRHalloran

@ClayMorgan Yeah, Five Guys is very good. I just wish my meal didn't cost $12 for me alone. But eh... that's why it's good, I know! If you want quality, you got to pay for it. 

biggreenpen
biggreenpen

@ClayMorgan I think it made for a better analysis to separate out issues from the growth trajectory and I commend you for that. And I agree on the ingredients .... so many of us consumers are becoming better informed. And to CFA's credit the ingredients that I am leery of are clearly listed on their website so at least I can do my research and make a sound decision.

Rieva
Rieva

@RobBiesenbach @Danny Brown That's not off track. That is exactly the track. We can couch a lot of prejudice and bigotry by citing religious beliefs. But I thought one FUNDAMENTAL part of those beliefs  was "judge not lest ye be judged." 

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

@RobBiesenbach I haven't read/watched the interview, so not aware of the full comments he made. And yes, that's repulsive no matter your religious belief (though I'd say that's down to his assumed racism versus religious beliefs).

I used his statement regarding homosexuality as it was tied into the points Clay uses for Cathay and his company. There are a lot of religious folks in the U.S., and they don't let that religion take a side stand to anything.

I was reading through a Facebook discussion last night about the Duck Dynasty guy, and the overriding majority were in his favour, saying stuff like "God is just", "Don't go against the wishes of God", "He is just repeating God's words", etc, etc. Some of the comments, I wanted to shout through the screen, "Are you a f***ing idiot?!?" Sadly, ignorance, religion and bigotry often go hand-in-hand, it would seem.

All that aside, I don't think this was ever truly a crisis. Chick-fil-A has very clear religious views (or Cathay does) - right or wrong, they connected with a huge customer base that stood up for those views by eating more at the outlets.

When you have a religious backdrop to a perceived crisis, more often than not the faith will overcome the faux pas (or whatever the crisis is deemed). And that's not going to change anytime soon.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Crisis Communications: How Chick-fil-A Weathered the Storm […]